On March 21, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden signed a proclamation to celebrate “Second Chance Month.” Launched in 2017, with support from Prison Fellowship, and a resolution unanimously passed by the United States Senate, Second Chance Month is, as President Biden stated, a time at which:
“We must commit to second chances from the earliest stages of our criminal justice system. Supporting second chances means, for example, diverting individuals who have used illegal drugs to drug court programs and treatment instead of prison. It requires eliminating exceedingly long sentences and mandatory minimums that keep people incarcerated longer than they should be. It means providing quality job training and educational opportunities during incarceration to prepare individuals for the 21st century economy. And it means reinvesting the savings from reduced incarceration into reentry programs and social services that prevent recidivism and leave us all better off.”
Providing an education to incarcerated adults is an important endeavor. Generally speaking, our state and federal prison systems have four education categories:
Supporters of prison education programs, including myself, will often debate the merits of vocational education vs. liberal arts programs, the benefits of a GED vs. a college degree, or the superiority of in-person instruction vs. online learning. Although each topic is important to any discussion about rehabilitation, character development for prison education programs is a topic that receives little attention.
One organization that incorporates character development into its pre- and post-release model to help incarcerated adults achieve personal and professional success is RISE, an Omaha-based nonprofit that operates an education program inside seven Nebraska prisons. To achieve its vision to see “that all people will find freedom from cycles of incarceration,” RISE students—called “Builders”—participate in an innovative six-month program that focuses on character development, job readiness, and entrepreneurship to prepare for a new life inside or outside of prison. Builders that graduate from the program receive a RISE completion certificate and a certificate in career readiness from the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s School of Business Administration.
I learned about RISE from Todd Johnson, the Senior Vice President of Economic Development for the Greater Omaha Chamber, and, at that time a member of an entrepreneurship and economic mobility working group I led for a few years while he was a senior executive at Gallup. Recently, Johnson was appointed a member of the RISE board of directors.
In 2019, I traveled to Nebraska to see the RISE program in action and to learn about its unique curriculum. Once inside a prison, I was asked to judge a business competition pitch for Builders, and engage in conversations with prison staff, RISE volunteers, and its leadership team. I even participated in a “welcome to RISE dance” for first-time visitors to the prison program (if you call what I did a dance). I learned a lot about RISE and prison reform in general in Nebraska, learnings I summarized in an op-ed I coauthored with my undergraduate research intern from Dillard University.
In March 2021, a former RISE student—now a RISE employee—published a story in a report about his experience in the program and what it meant for his overall development as a person. Here are a couple of noteworthy quotes from this story (see story number 5):
“One of the most beneficial experiences I got from RISE was going over the material twice a week in a group setting with a RISE program coordinator leading the way. This provided an opportunity for us to grow both as individuals and as a community by creating a space to get real and vulnerable with one another—something that is rare inside a correctional facility, but oh, so needed. These sessions gave me an opportunity to look at everything I had learned up to that point and challenged me to go deeper.”
When describing benefits from RISE beyond the certificate, or the creation of a business plan, the author touched on the deep, cultural meanings RISE added to his life.
“So, what have I gotten out of educational programs during incarceration? The first thing I found was hope. Then I acquired some self-honesty. These two things propelled me down a path of transformation where I started finding principles that were completely foreign to me. They include honesty, integrity, forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, faith, compassion, kindness, mercy, patience, and grace.”
As we promote the academic and job readiness benefits of prison education programs during Second Chance Month (and beyond), let us remember to promote personal agency benefits as well. Character development is one of the benefits that we should pursue in more prison education programs.
Gerard Robinson served as Commissioner of Education for the State of Florida and Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia. His other leadership roles have included Executive Director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity and Director and President of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Robinson also was a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is coeditor of Education for Liberation: The Politics of Promise and Reform Inside and Beyond America’s Prisons (2019) and Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice (2017). In addition, he cohosts The Learning Curve: National Education Podcast. Robinson has been published or quoted in AEI Ideas, Gallup News, Newsweek, The Hedgehog Review, the Hill, the New York Times, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and US News & World Report. He earned a BA and EdM from Harvard University and an AA from El Camino Community College.